People of the River, “If Fields Could Be Carried”

Hamatika School
Gwembe valley
October 4, 2002

Dear Aunty Grace

Thank you very much for the food that arrived yesterday. Mother was thrilled to see it. She cried because she had not seen so much mealie meal for months. Straightaway she cooked a really big meal of nshima. We ate really well last night and I still feel full today.

Some days when I’m unable to write at home, too lazy to make breakfast, or just need a better cup of coffee than I make around here, I head for a local Internet Cafe. Java Street is a very pleasant spot run by a gracious friend named Stacy and habituated by a generally interesting and diverse group of people.

Yesterday as I settled in, plugged in the laptop and ordered breakfast I spoke to a couple of the regulars who play chess most mornings trading quick coffee house greetings. As I opened the morning paper I noticed at the next table a very pretty young woman (I’m a professional, a trained observer, it’s my job) wearing a headset, engrossed in her work and seemingly oblivious to the coffee aromas mixed with the lingering memory of burnt toast and the low murmur of breakfast banter wafting in her vicinity.

I wonder where you managed to find all that food? There has been nothing in the market here for weeks now and the last maize that came was so expensive that we could not afford it. The harvest from our farm ran out in July, after only a few weeks. Since then father has been walking to the next village to work as a brick maker. He gets really tired with the long walk and the hard work but the boss pays him in food so at least we have had something to eat, even if it is often only one meal a day.

I decided when I got up yesterday, to not try to write and instead, take care of some of the administrative jobs on the website, fixing links, window dressing, doing a little promotion, responding to comments at other sites etc. I had written several short things in the last week and felt myself reaching, grasping for more, and knew that I should take a day off lest I succumb to my inner literary greed.

Unfortunately he has been told there is no more work after next week and so no more food. Mother says my brothers and I will probably have to leave school for a few weeks to look for food in the bush and to help in our fields in the hope that we get a harvest this April.

I’m not sure how but after breakfast, after the the checkmate at the next table, after the headset was removed, and my busywork was done I caught the eye of the lovely young woman (blue eyes filled with wit and humor, with intelligence, curiosity and charm) and asked her what she was working on.

I hope things are better for you in Lusaka. We always imagine the capital city will be really rich, with plenty of food and it must be wonderful to be able to watch television! Lots of my friends want to come there to get jobs and get rich, but I am not sure, what do you think?

Please write soon

With love
Joy Mweeba

Her gaze was direct, her smile pleasant, if somewhat quizzical, and her tone frank as she explained that she was a graduate student in anthropology, preparing to leave in a few days for a summer research project in Africa.

I heard the roaring of lions, the gentle thrumming of rain on the jungle canopy, the rhythm of distant drums, I was smitten, smitten with Africa and of course, ancient though I am, with this, this, young lady, this girl really, younger than my shirt, so lovely and young so brave and earnest.

Half a century ago, when I was a boy, before high school, before John Kennedy, Vietnam, marriage, a dozen years before the birth of my son there was a great dam built in what once was Northern Rhodesia on the Zambezi River. Kariba Dam among the worlds largest was built to interrupt the flow and harness the power of the mighty river, power that was needed to run the colonial towns and cities in what would become Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As the river rose, foot by inexorable foot behind the dam, as the great fertile valley became Lake Kariba, now one of the worlds largest man made lakes, great efforts were made to save and relocate the wildlife of the area.

The wildlife of Zambia is the stuff of legend, of history merged with legend, Livingstone and Stanley, Great White hunters, safaris, a magnificent remnant of some ancient Eden.

Project Noah it was called, a great relocation of wild creatures which preserved untold thousands of wild and exotic animals who made their home in the Zambezi valley. They commemorated this rescue with a plaque in Kariba.

There were other residents of the valley of the Zambezi, the Tonga of the Gwembe valley, they called themselves “Basilwizi” the river people. They were the river, a part of the Zambezi and the river was part of them, flowing through them body and soul as surely as the blood that courses in their veins.

They had been there for centuries, living, farming in the rich alluvial soil along the banks of the Zambezi, year after year planting and tilling their crops and and erecting rain shrines all over the basin where they performed Mpande, ceremonial rites to ensure that the rains would come and the the harvest would be plentiful and there would be food to eat.

The Noah project neglected to treat the River people with the same care shown to the animals, the same sensitivity in their relocation. The British made promises, promises of good housing, of schools and roads and loan opportunities, their area, the new one that is, would be a showcase of clinics and wells and grinding mills.


Promises made to nearly sixty thousand who were relocated on higher ground where the sandy soil no longer supported their crops, where no amount of prayer and supplication or appeasement of the spirits would bring the rich harvest of the past or provide fodder for their cattle, their goats.

The Basilwizi, the River People describe now how their shrines are submerged by the waters, “there was no way the shrines and some of the spirits could be carried with us,” they say.

“Life was very good in the Valley when I was growing up. We had more than enough food,” they say.

“If fields could be carried, we could have carried them with us,” they say.

I’ve had breakfast this morning and coffee and writing was easy with the grass and the rabbits, the leaning blue spruce and the breeze blowing through the window from the back yard.

I’m going to the coffee shop anyway this morning ,
I want to find that earnest and lovely and brave young woman.
I want to ask her to be my friend, to write to me and share what she finds in that place, that Africa.

I want a piece of the adventure she is about to embark upon and I want her to share with me,
to share, these Basilwizi,
her people of the river.

Bob Higgins
Worldwide Sawdust

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About BobHiggins

Lifelong liberal of the Tom Paine wing. Marine Vietnam vet. Have worked as a photographer, cab driver, bartender, carpenter and cabinetmaker. Now retired on a Veterans Disability program I spend my time writing and editing and complaining. Ahh the Golden Years.
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3 Responses to People of the River, “If Fields Could Be Carried”

  1. Ginny Cotts says:


    Please continue to ‘succumb to my inner literary greed.’

    It’s a beautiful gift for us.

  2. Bob says:

    Thanks Ginny,


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